[This column, as always, avoids spoilers for the novel discussed.]
Recently, a friend and I were discussing Halloween, the holiday during which children (and, increasingly, adults) dress in ridiculous (and, increasingly, indecent) costumes and go door-to-door asking for candy. In recent years, I have become more and more hesitant to embrace the holiday. Yes, its roots may well lie in the celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day, two feasts that I hold dear. However, Halloween’s character seems to draw farther from these Christian celebrations with each passing year. In a time when many teenagers and young adults in my nation and others find occult practices such as playing with Ouija boards to be good fun and are increasingly forsaking Christianity in favor of vague spiritualism, Wicca, and even outright Satanism, you can understand my trepidation about a holiday that encourages children to dress up and play-act as ghosts, witches, and demons. In addition, media aimed at children and teenagers increasingly engages with witchcraft and demonic beings. Celebrating Halloween fifty years ago, when most children were dressed as cowboys, nurses, or Superman, was a harmless diversion; celebrating it in today’s increasingly occultist culture is quite a different story.
I expressed this view to my friend. He was sympathetic, but he raised a valuable series of questions. Isn’t it important for man to confront the realities of evil in the world and in his own breast? Yes, people should not celebrate evil, but don’t children need to cultivate an awareness of it? Couldn’t Christians reclaim Halloween as a time to fast and pray for those who are in the Devil’s clutches? Christianity (particularly medieval Christianity) has a long tradition of engaging with the macabre, and many spiritual masters have insisted on the importance of meditating on one’s own death, even spurring a literary form known as the “art of dying.” Couldn’t this season actually help us come to a greater gratitude to God for offering protection, and ultimately salvation, from evil?
While I have not yet come to a satisfying answer to these questions, they have challenged me to think more seriously about the place of the frightful, the scary, the spooky, in our lives. Having never been one for the scary story, much less the horror film, this has required me to delve into some literary works that I have not previously encountered. One such work, which I commend to you today, is Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca.
The haunting of Manderley
Rebecca, told entirely in the first person, is the story of an unnamed female narrator who falls in love with the wealthy and tortured Maximilian de Winter. When she first meets Maxim (as he later asks her to call him), she is reminded of courtly men in paintings of the medieval world. She comes to learn that Maxim’s wife, the eponymous Rebecca, drowned in the sea by his estate. Mourning, Maxim seeks out the solitude of Monte Carlo, where he meets the narrator. Despite the great disparity of wealth and breeding between Maxim and the protagonist, he begins to seek out her company and ultimately proposes marriage. She accepts, believing that she and her new husband will be blissfully happy.
After the honeymoon, the couple return as master and mistress of Manderley, the castle-like home they are to share. Everywhere she looks, the narrator is reminded of Maxim’s late wife. Rebecca’s presence seems to haunt every inch of the house and ground. Author du Maurier’s artful prose makes readers feel as though we too are surrounded by the atmospheric gloom of the protagonist’s life at Manderley. Each room has been exquisitely furnished by Rebecca, every object the narrator touches serves as a reminder of the dead woman, and readers feel as though we, like her, cannot escape Rebecca’s spectral presence.
Moreover, the narrator is haunted by the sense that her husband does not—cannot, perhaps—love her. She believes Maxim thinks only of the late Rebecca. The narrator thinks she could never stand up to any comparison with Maxim’s first wife, and she becomes increasingly uncomfortable simply existing in the colossal estate. To make matters worse, Maxim is not the only person at Manderley who seems to be constantly comparing the new lady of the house to the dearly departed one. Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper, is still grieving for Rebecca. Indeed, Mrs. Danvers obsesses over her dead mistress, and she borders on eroticizing the dead, as she keeps all Rebecca’s clothes, grasping and smelling them when she believes no one will see. Mrs. Danvers constantly personifies Rebecca’s continuing influence over Manderley, implicitly reminding the narrator that she can never be worthy of her new role as Maxim’s wife. And, just as Rebecca herself is dead, so Mrs. Danvers is constantly associated with the dead and the decaying, with her skulking behavior and her uncanny face, repeatedly described as skull-like. Her visage haunts the narrator’s thoughts as she tries to adjust to life at Manderley.
The novel feels as though it is heightening the tension every chapter. Events transpire that keep readers on the edge of their seats, but the author’s real mastery comes through less in the plotting than in the window readers are given by which to see the narrator’s interior torment. Despite her good character and modesty at the beginning of the novel, the narrator is devoured by thoughts of Rebecca and becomes obsessed with her own unworthiness. Readers are led to see how this impacts her life and marriage over the course of the novel. She is both blessed and cursed with an astonishingly vivid and detailed imagination, which contributes masterfully to the sense of doom that pervades the novel.
Not for nothing does the protagonist remain unnamed. In some sense, Rebecca becomes the protagonist in the narrator’s own life, to the point that she confesses, “I had so identified myself with Rebecca that my own dull self did not exist, had never come to Manderley.” This, for readers, is a terrifying experience, made even worse as horrific secrets are unraveled and we are exposed to Manderley’s hidden darkness.
The power of horror
While reading Rebecca, I was continually led to question the value of this frightening tale. Yes, I was deeply wrapped up in the twists and turns of the plot, the lifelike characters, and the chilling atmosphere, but was there something deeper going on? This is a perennial question in the Western tradition. One need think only of Plato’s masterful interrogations of pagan poetry and art to realize it goes beyond gothic novels and the genre of horror. However, there is something particularly acute about objections to frightening novels, plays, and films, particularly those dealing with death, ghosts, magic, and the like.
However, I wonder if contemporary conservatives are not tempted to hold double-standards on this matter. For instance, for the last two decades conservative Christian parents have debated whether to allow their children to read Harry Potter because of the prominence of magic in the series, and this is certainly a debate worth having. However, many of these same parents would be perfectly happy to provide their children with books about King Arthur, despite the fact that the king’s most trusted advisor, Merlin, himself a magician, is the literal child of a demon who sexually violated a maiden, Merlin’s mother.
Part of the explanation for this is the conservative trust in the old and tried and skepticism towards the new and untested, and this is obviously warranted. The tales of King Arthur (and Merlin) have filled the heads and hearts of many a generation of Christian children, seemingly to positive effect. Nonetheless, the contents of Arthurian legend (or Greek mythology, or many traditional fairy tales) are not self-evidently less questionable than recent literature with gothic tinges and horror themes. Thus, I propose that we should have a certain cautious openness to more recent works that engage with these themes. An uncontroversial example would be the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which contains a magic, used by good (Gandalf) and (Saruman) alike. In recent decades, they have (justifiably) come to be seen as modern classics, and they were written by a very devout Catholic, but let us not forget that The Silmarillion was published four years after The Exorcist was released in theaters. I say all this not to cast any aspersions on the works of Tolkien, but to advocate for cautiously opening our minds a bit to unfamiliar works that engage with gothic and even horrific situations.
To think a bit more clearly about this, let’s look to a figure you likely haven’t heard of, Scott Derrickson. A Hollywood director and devout Christian who cites Chesterton’s Orthodoxy as his favorite book, he has almost exclusively directed horror films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and last year’s The Black Phone. I would have had little reason to ever stumble across his work, except that he directed the 2016 Marvel movie Doctor Strange, a film that, in my view, is perhaps the best treatment of the reality of spiritual forces of any major Hollywood film released in the last decade, even receiving a thoughtful review from American Bishop Robert Barron. As a result of seeing that movie, I did a bit of Googling in hopes of finding other works by the same director and was disappointed to see that the rest of his works were horror films. However, I stumbled upon two interviews, one published by the National Catholic Register and the other by BeliefNet, in which the director considered the relationship between his faith and his work.
In one of the interviews, Derrickson made a claim about horror films that has stuck with me since reading it. He said:
For me, [horror] is the perfect genre for a person of faith to work in. You can think about good and evil pretty openly. I always talk about it being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world.
When I first read this, I was inclined to disagree—how could a movie about, say, an exorcism, be fitting for a Christian to make compared with films and television shows that depict tales from Holy Writ, like The Passion of the Christ or The Chosen?
And yet, Derrickson has a point. Most contemporary religious art and media is saccharine, providing soft comfort without challenging anyone spiritually or aesthetically. A low-budget Christian film is a far cry from St. John the Baptist’s harsh regimen of prayer and fasting, the prophets’ courage in the face of hatred, and the book of Revelation’s descriptions of the end of time. Holy Writ, though beautiful in the deepest sense, deals with difficult realities. Throughout Scripture, readers are occasionally confronted by horrors to compete with those of any exorcism film. Indeed, one of my above-cited examples, the Biblically-inspired film The Passion of the Christ, includes not only extended and gruesome depictions of the horrors of Christ’s Crucifixion but even has Satan as a character in the film.
Crucially, though, The Passion (and, for that matter, Scripture itself) does not dwell on pain, suffering, and evil for their own sake. Instead, it confronts the realities of evil, realities that every human being must recognize and face courageously. Similarly, Derrickson argues that the spiritually-attuned horror film is “not about putting something evil in the world. It’s about reckoning with evil. We don’t need any more evil in the world. We need a lot more reckoning with it.”
Rebecca and reckoning with evil
Despite Derrickson’s thoughtful comments, I remain uninterested in watching horror films. I shudder at the prospect of viewing gruesome depictions of violence and gore, and even the horror films that are more tasteful in this respect still tend to strike me as voyeuristic. I recognize the importance of the issues Derrickson raises, but it seems to me that we can get the benefits he sees in horror without having to watch the films.
This is where the novel Rebecca comes in. Rebecca is, if you hadn’t guessed, often described as a ‘gothic’ novel. Gothic novels are at times criticized for falling into some of the same pitfalls as horror films. They are, it is argued, more concerned with spectacle than substance, frightening readers and relying on cheap thrills. While this is a temptation of the genre, I think that there are a number of works, Rebecca among them, that avoid falling into these mistakes. They share the positive aspects of horror Derrickson discusses without including the aspects of horror movies that most dissuade me from watching them.
Like many gothic novels, Rebecca puts readers face-to-face with our own mortality and the reality of evil, including the evil in our own hearts. It is perhaps this last that does the most to prevent novels like Rebecca from becoming shallow. The work’s eerie quality is, of course, informed by the sense of Rebecca’s presence in Manderley, but the more profoundly unsettling aspect of the novel intensifies as readers come to recognize the evils the author is grappling with. As the novel goes on, small pieces of information are dropped that begin to illuminate Rebecca’s character (and Maxim’s and Mrs. Danvers’), and this leads to the surprising choices the narrator makes in response to these revelations.
While I still do not know what to think about the celebration of Halloween, I am convinced that we owe it to ourselves to confront the reality of evil through art and literature. Certainly not all depictions of evil are worth our time, but some are, and Du Maurier’s Rebecca is certainly one of them. If you pick up a copy, you will be challenged to reckon with the evil that lies in the hearts of men, and you’ll also get the chance to enjoy a ripping good scary story.